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18 April 2017updated 19 Apr 2017 9:10am

Has Theresa May turned her back on Northern Ireland?

A new devolution settlement is now as good as impossible before June - and a bruising Brexit election won't help either. 

By Patrick Maguire

As U-turns go, Prime Minister Theresa May’s decision to call an early election was a spectacular one. In one respect, however, it was a move entirely consistent with a defining feature of her premiership – Northern Ireland is at the bottom of her list of priorities. Before May’s statement, there was some wildly misguided speculation that it would offer some solution to the impasse at Stormont – such as a return to direct rule. June’s election will do anything but.

“It shows you how much Theresa May thinks/cares about our peace process that she’d call an election in the middle of talks”. That was the verdict of Social Democratic and Labour Party leader Colum Eastwood – and it’s  difficult to disagree with the sentiment. For all her insistence that now is not the time to play political games, May has plunged Northern Ireland into yet more political uncertainty for the sake of a Westminster one. 

Despite her close relationship with Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire, it’s clear that this decision was May’s and May’s alone. That a senior source at Northern Ireland Office told me they had “no idea” what the prime minister was about to announce this morning suggests this possibility wasn’t on Brokenshire’s radar until Cabinet met. He had, after all, extended the deadline for the latest round of power-sharing talks for a third time just last week, and has since said that talks will continue and that the election will not change the timetable.

But the chances of Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party reaching a settlement by May were already very, very slim, and can now be taken as basically non-existent. The practicalities of holding talks in the middle of a general election campaign aside, both parties have good reason to push for another Assembly election – recent voter registration drives from both suggest their long game is to do just that – and as such were already unwilling to expend political capital reaching a messy compromise. 

This is even truer now. With the talks are as good as written off, another rancorous orange-on-green election of the type we saw in March is likely to follow. Free from coalition-building obligations at Stormont, Sinn Fein and the DUP can play mercilessly to their electoral bases again (casting further doubt on the prospects of long-term cooperation). Though Gerry Adams said on Sunday that a “new, generous unionist approach will be embraced and met with generosity from Sinn Fein and other progressives”, the weeks ahead will instead invite – and necessitate – electoral pugilism.

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It is easy to assume that general elections in Northern Ireland are siloed from campaigns in mainland Britain. Not so this time. The DUP’s close association with the Conservatives, and the likelihood that the Conservatives will attack both Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell for their steadfast support of Sinn Fein and alleged IRA sympathies, means that electioneering pitched at middle England will feed into the culture wars that still dominate Northern Ireland’s politics. The province’s troubled past remains a live issue and continues to disrupt the business of devolved government. Attacking Corbyn with the Lynton Crosby playbook will do nothing to defuse it.

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Things are further complicated circumstances of May’s ascension to the premiership – via Brexit – and her need to seek a mandate of her own. The DUP – more enthusiastic cheerleaders for May’s premiership than much of her own party – backed Leave, against the wishes of 56 per cent of the Northern Irish electorate, and suffered at the polls as a result. They may well do so again – seats that would have otherwise been winnable, such as SDLP-held South Belfast (where Alasdair McDonnell is defending a majority of 906), are now probably unlikely to fall. By the same token, they now face the very real prospect of losing marginals such as East Belfast and Fermanagh and South Tyrone (won back by the Ulster Unionist Party under a unionist pact in 2015) to the Alliance and Sinn Fein respectively.

Perversely, however, the existential questions thrown up around the union by Brexit – and Sinn Fein’s repeated calls for a border poll – will likely ensure that 8 June is a much better day at the office for unionism than 2 March.

The nationalist vote in March was boosted both by Brexit and what’s best described as the crocodile effect – a sectarian reaction to Arlene Foster’s belligerence towards the nationalist community. There is every reason to believe that, with Irish unity on the agenda like never before, and Adams leading the Sinn Fein line, that the unionist cause will receive a “reverse crocodile” boost in June (a number of DUP MPs have told me they expect this to happen). Co-operation between the DUP and UUP delivered several gains in 2015 and will allow for consolidation of the unionist vote. Similarly, while formal pacts between Sinn Fein and the SDLP won’t happen, the Brexit factor will likely ensure tactical nationalist voting secures their three seats.  

There remains one factor that could substantially complicate the picture: another Assembly election. Among early reaction from Westminster was the suggestion that, with power-sharing talks untenable, an emboldened Sinn Fein could now demand a new Stormont poll for the same day as the general. It is doubtful that the UUP – struggling for relevance and reduced to just 10 seats in March – would cooperate with the DUP while attempting to claw back support from them on another front. The SDLP and UUP’s unspoken alliance at the Assembly election is also worth bearing in mind. A united unionist front is far from a foregone conclusion.

Beyond this, there remains the fundamental question of whether the 18 Northern Irish MPs will matter very much in the next parliament at all. While the Conservatives’ slender post-2015 majority has allowed the DUP’s eight MPs to wield outsized influence at Wesminster, May will have little need to court them come June. This throws up intriguing questions about Brokenshire’s future. Parliamentary arithmetic has necessitated a close relationship between the government and DUP; doing so has meant the secretary of state has exhausted the trust and goodwill of many nationalist politicians.

Brokenshire is deemed out of his depth by the Stormont establishment and by an increasing number of his own party. Should the Tories win a landslide, the DUP management aspect of his role will have disappeared – but questions over his supposed partiality, justified or not, will still remain. His continued presence could prove a barrier to a new settlement after the election – at which point Northern Ireland will have been without a devolved executive for almost six months. The government are loth to give Sinn Fein a scalp. But with a transition to direct rule by stealth already in train, could he be replaced come a victory reshuffle?